Wednesday, 19 December 2018

The Specials

Throughout the latter half of this year I spent an unexpected amount of time in police cars. But far from being taken into custody, I was shooting a series of films for Cambridgeshire Police. All part of a recruitment drive to attract more Special Constables into the force.

The shoots required several trips across the Fens in all directions and in all weathers. From dog day care to martial arts, I spent a couple of days with each of four Special Constables from across Cambridgeshire: Eloise, Phil, Sara and Stephen. Check out the videos here:





Friday, 30 November 2018

Japan: a country of contradictions

Japan is a place where robots brush shoulders with geishas, ancient Shinto shrines stand in the shadows of skyscrapers and quaint tea ceremonies follow neon-lit shopping sprees. It's chaotic but rigorously ordered. Hyper-modern but strictly traditional.

It's also a land of perfectionists, with unrivalled attention to detail. From squeaky clean streets to heated toilet seats and from trains running on time to a near absence of crime. Kaizen is the relentless pursuit of improvement, and it influences every aspect of Japanese life from factory assembly lines to sushi chefs.

There are a thousand reasons to visit Japan. The temples, the mountains, the food. The people, the hot springs, the history. You'll arrive eager and curious, and leave even more curious still.

The snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji making a brief appearance through the clouds.
Incense burning at a temple in Nikko.
The bamboo groves of Kyoto.

Geisha culture is still mainstream in Kyoto.
To be honest, when choosing a travel destination the colour of its foliage is not usually on my list of priorities. However, having now witnessed a Japanese autumn in all its fiery glory I can see what the fuss is about.

Catching 'peak colour' in every location in a three week trip is logistically impossible. But it didn't stop us trying. Our route through Japan was designed to follow the gradual creep of autumn, maximising our exposure to the brilliant reds and oranges. This essentially meant we traveled from north to south, and generally visited high-altitude areas first. More or less.

Autumn colours around a pond in Nikko.

Autumn colours in a Japanese garden in Nikko.

Autumn colours around Lake Chuzenji.
Before I meander off in all directions, and in a genuine attempt at being helpful, here are five practical tips for a trip to Japan:

1) Invest in a Japan Rail Pass and use the HyperDia app to plan journeys.

2) Get a Japanese sim card so you can use the internet for maps and translations on the go.

3) If you're going in autumn use Japan Guide's online autumn colour reports to plan your itinerary.

4) Don't assume you can use your card everywhere. Surprisingly, lots of places are cash-only.

5) Practice with chopsticks before you go.

Most important though is to be open-minded and embrace the weirdness. You'll find cultural quirks around every corner that will fascinate, bewilder and amuse. Often all at once. And nowhere is that more true than the food.

The food

Choosing something to eat is a daunting prospect, and the choice of vocabulary doesn't help. Thanks to overly literal translations the words 'guts' and 'innards' are scattered liberally across most menus. Squid guts and soy beans, anyone? How about some skewered chicken innards?

But trust me. If you can get past the initial shock (and gag reflex), you're guaranteed to find something delicious. It'll be somewhere between the pig rectum and cod semen.

The best place to sample skewered chicken innards is in Tokyo's Yakitori Lane - a cramped alleyway stuffed with tiny eateries - also known as Piss Alley. During prohibition it was home to many illegal drinking dens, all lacking toilet facilities. Hence the unfortunate nickname.

Japanese pubs, or Izakaya, are a great place to start. Identifiable by paper lanterns hanging at their often unassuming entryways, they are essentially Japanese tapas bars. And because they serve small portions you can be experimental without the risk of being too wasteful. Just in case some of it proves too offensive to your delicate Western palette.

An absolute must for meat-eaters is a trip to Kobe to sample its world famous beef. A Kobe cow, whilst alive, is massaged daily and fed beer to stimulate appetite. Eye-wateringly expensive but mouth-wateringly tasty, the result is simply the finest steak in the world. And when accompanied with a bottle of red, eating Grade A5 Kobe beef is nothing short of a religious experience.

And who in their right mind would visit Japan without gorging on sushi? Or slurping up a bowl of ramen at one of Tokyo's 6,000+ ramen houses? (Just remember, the louder you slurp the higher the compliment to the chef.)

Tsukiji Market is a good place to start if you're looking for fresh sushi.

For uncooked and living animals go and meet the troop of 170 wild Japanese macaque monkeys in Arashiyama, Kyoto.
If you're lucky there will be babies.

The fun

The fact Japan is the birthplace of embarrassing oneself with a microphone tells you all you need to know. Karaoke is the epitome of Japanese enjoyment. In other words, looking a little bit silly is all part of the fun. Like the couples in matching clothes carrying their favourite cuddly toy, or the fully-grown adults reading Manga comics on the train, or the businessmen in suits playing Pokemon in one of the many videogame arcades.

This sense of silliness climaxes at Halloween. Combining a love of dressing up with a fondness of commercial hype, October 31st has become a big deal. Trick-or-treating hasn't taken off - thanks to an ingrained cultural reluctance to burden one's neighbours - but that hasn't stopped the Japanese embracing this American celebration with enthusiasm.

And nowhere is Halloween more enthusiastically embraced than the infamous street party of Shibuya, in the heart of Tokyo's downtown. Hoards of fancy-dress-clad Tokyoites gather to drink saké from paper cups and compare costumes in a sea of selfie sticks.

Probably my favourite.

The feds

Keeping a watchful eye on the rowdiness in Shibuya were Tokyo police, the largest metropolitan police force in the world. But their main focus seemed to be castigating revellers for playing music through portable speakers. You can have fun, but no music! 

Invariably, the guilty DJs cut the music. After all, coupled with the Japanese devotion to flawlessness is an uncompromising respect for law and order. Discipline and obedience are culturally enshrined. And as a result, Japanese society not only calls for clean streets and punctual trains, it demands a zero tolerance to crime. And if that means no music, it means no music.

A plethora of nanny-state rules are rigorously followed, without question and without fail. Don't cross the road unless the man is green; take your litter home with you; no smoking on the street. Japan is certainly not a place for rebels.

Japan is not a place for rebels... unless you're a sacred wild deer in Nara.

The deer in Nara are well loved by tourists (and well fed), but some locals are not so enamoured.
Due to agricultural damage the government are planning a cull to manage numbers. To fight this decision some residents have set-up the delightfully named 'Let’s Make the Deer Population More Sustainable and Enjoy Nara Again Friendship Association'. Or the LMTDPMSAENAFA for short.

Wild deer also roam the island of Miyajima, just off the coast near Hiroshima. 

Thanks mostly to the general obedience of the population, Tokyo has the lowest crime rate of any major city in the world. Which leaves the largest police force in the world with very little to do. Not surprisingly then, petty crimes are being treated with increasing forensic rigour.

Just ask the 71 year-old man who was arrested in Tokyo for scribbling a Hitler moustache on a poster. Or the group of friends arrested for running an illegal taxi because they shared the cost of a hire car. No wonder there are dissenting Japanese voices accusing their country of becoming a police state.

Far from crime: a Japanese garden in Tokyo.

Tokyo at night.
The pursuit of perfection may have had detrimental effects on personal freedoms, but it has to be said: for the average traveler, the feeling of safety is tangible.

So roam the backstreets at night and loosen your grip on your camera strap. Embrace all the glorious oddities of Japan safe in the knowledge there's probably a policeman around the next corner, bored out of his mind, who's got your back.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

How not to falter in Malta

Are you thinking of a trip to Malta the next time you manage to escape your particular version of tragic reality? Here are a few handy tips along with some photos I took with my very own index finger.

San Blas Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Tip #1: 

Go out-out in Valletta.

We found Valletta's nightlife to be unexpectedly cool. And I mean cool in a cocktail-bars-spilling-out-onto-the-street kind of way, not in a I-think-I-might-need-a-jumper-soon kind of way (though do take a jumper with you just in case, obviously). 

Our highlight was the Cinema Bar where a pianist provided a live soundtrack to old silent films  projected onto the wall, whilst I drank over-priced craft beer and chain-ate complimentary popcorn.

Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #2: 

Don't expect to be blown away by stunning beaches (unless you go to Gozo).

We stayed in Mellieha because it was said to have one of the best beaches in Malta, but Mellieha itself is just a concrete jungle of ugly hotels and apartment complexes near an underwhelming stretch of sand. And don't even get me started on Bugibba. 

The island of Gozo has some far prettier spots. See Tip #3.

Valletta Contemporary, Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #3: 

Gozo is prettier.

A little underwhelmed by what Malta had to offer in terms of scenery, we hired a car and got the ferry over to Gozo (20 minutes). You can drive from anywhere to anywhere on Gozo in less than half an hour on near-empty roads, and - good for us - they drive on the right side of the road (meaning the left side). We saw all four corners of the island in a day and wish we could have stayed longer.

Find the beautiful secluded red sand beach at San Blas and then cross the island for a seafood lunch in the stunning Xlendi Bay. Perfect.

San Blas Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Xlendi Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Xlendi Bay, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Victoria, Gozo © Ryan Chapman

Tip #4: 

Visit the Lascaris War Rooms.

All I knew about Malta's involvement in World War II came from a brief summary on the BBC's World War II in Colour series (which is on Netflix now by the way, and is brilliant). It turns out that the George Cross awarded to Malta for the courage of its people was well-earned, and a trip to the War Rooms in Valletta will reveal why.

The defence of Malta from wave after wave of attacks from Axis air forces was orchestrated from here, as was the Invasion of Sicily. Wait for a guided tour and have it all dramatically re-lived. Cross your fingers and hope that Stefan is your guide because he's an incredible goosebump-inducing storyteller. 

Before anyone could beat him to it he finished the tour by saying "I know, I know. If only I was your history teacher". He knew everyone was thinking it.

Lascaris War Rooms, Valletta © Ryan Chapman

Tip #5:

The food is incredible.

It's an over-used compliment and one I think is rarely justified when applied to entire countries,
however the food in Malta is incredible. For whatever reason, the bar is set very high. We ate at some average-looking 'this'll do' kind of places and were super impressed with almost everything. We also ate at some very highly-rated places and were never disappointed.

Our overall favourite was Rebekah's in Mellieha. This friendly little place is a Michelin Star waiting to happen. It's fairly priced for what is exceptional food and they even offer a pick-up service if you're staying near-by. Winning.

Valletta © Ryan Chapman
Gozo sunset © Ryan Chapman

To conclude, any trip to Malta should include at least a day exploring Gozo; at least a day and night in Valletta; and some budget set aside to eat really, really well.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Merci Arsene

After an emotionally crushing defeat in Madrid on the Thursday it was easy to imagine the Emirates being somewhat flat for Arsene Wenger's final home match, just three days later. It was anything but.

The stars may not have aligned for Wenger to leave Arsenal on a European trophy high, but they did at least align for his farewell party. The sun, the goals, the late afternoon kick-off on a bank-holiday weekend; all combined to create a special upbeat atmosphere rather than the subdued wake-like affair I had feared.

When Wenger arrived in North London I'd already been a Gooner for a good few years, having been indoctrinated during the tail-end of George Graham's reign. I don't specifically remember the infamous 'Arsene Who?' headline - I was even less of a keen reader of the Evening Standard as a kid than I am now - but I do remember the general feeling of intrigue surrounding his appointment. Personally I wanted Ian Wright to take over, ignoring the fact that top strikers don't tend to take on managerial positions at the peak of their playing career.

Within two seasons Wenger's poster was pride of place on my bedroom wall: Premiership trophy in his left hand, FA Cup trophy in his right. The 1997/98 league and cup double was just the beginning. Fast-forward a couple of decades and Arsenal fans at the Burnley game - the final home match of this season - were clearly determined not to let recent on-field events sour this day of appreciation. And nor, it seemed, were the players.

5-0 didn't even flatter Arsenal. With every goal the atmosphere grew more celebratory and at times it had the feel of a testimonial match. When Per Mertesacker entered the field of play for the last time with 10 minutes left, the game reached peak carnival. His every touch was cheered raucously. So vivid were the testimonial vibes I half-expected Wenger to sub himself on and be allowed to dance through the Burnley defence, dodging comically-timed tackles before lifting it over an already horizontal keeper to make it 6.

But Wenger didn't need to score a goal to be the centre of attention. With just seconds of normal time remaining, 'There's Only One Arsene Wenger' reverberated around the Emirates as loudly as I've heard any chant anywhere. And as if the referee wished to make that the lasting memory of the match he blew for full-time bang on 90 minutes. With the football out of the way, the ceremony could begin.

My thoughts as Wenger soaked up the love on a lap around the pitch had little to do with football. My overwhelming feeling was respect. Respect for the dignity and decency with which he conducted himself. Respect for the integrity with which he represented the club. Respect for his balance in commenting on a range of political and societal issues over the years. Respect for his fearlessness in doing things his way, back when his way was completely alien.

I mean, what right did this unknown Frenchman have - this unknown Frenchman who looked more like he was about to give a philosophy lecture than manage a football team - coming over here and revolutionising our national game? As a 10 year-old, in retrospect, I think that taught me a lot. It taught me not to judge a person on first impressions, their appearance, their nationality, or anything else.

So where did it all go wrong for Arsene at Arsenal?

I think Patrick Vieira summed it up perfectly, in a recent interview. Asked what Wenger's biggest strength is, Vieira answered: 'trust', describing how Wenger always trusted his players to do the right thing without direction. But when asked for Wenger's biggest weakness, Vieira answered the same. Trust. "Because sometimes as players you need to be kicked in the arse". And never has that been more true than this season.

For me though, the prevailing memory can only be respect. Not only has Wenger been a fantastic manager,  he's clearly an incredible human being too. So. Merci Arsene. Thank you for being you, and thank you for the memories - the doubles, the FA Cups, the zipper fails compilation video - and to echo your own sentiments: we will miss you.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Film festival update

My work is on show at several film festivals over the next few months. Here's what and where.

A Southern Quest:

US: Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival, 18th February
IE: Killarney Mountain Festival, 10th March
US: Wasatch Mountain Film Festival, 2nd - 8th April

A Southern Quest was a long time in the oven and is now gaining much-deserved traction at adventure film festivals. The film follows an ambitious expedition led by renowned climber Stephen Venables to conqueror unclimbed peaks on the Antarctic island of South Georgia.

My role began as editor but I've since taken on shooting and producing responsibilities and I'm delighted to see all the hard work paying off.

As an added bonus, Stephen Venables - the undisputed star of the film thanks to his effortless charm and witty one-liners - also happens to be giving a talk at the Killarney Mountain Festival about his  experiences climbing Mount Everest on a famous trip in 1988.

Austerity Britain: Grenfell

GB: Shorts On Tap, tbc
GB: Beer Town Film Festival, 26th May

There's always a worry that a film about a particular event or tragedy will quickly become outdated and irrelevant. Not so with a film about the Grenfell disaster. As we learn more and more about the causes of the fire and the subsequent lacklustre response from the authorities, it's as pertinent as ever to reflect on the lessons society and government haven't yet learnt.

This film was part of a four-part series I produced, directed and edited last year about the devastating societal effects of idealogical austerity. The fire at Grenfell happened after the first two parts had been released and was an obvious focus for the final instalment as it encapsulates the 'culture of cuts' so horrifically well.

When I submitted the film to the Beer Town Film Festival I thought it was being held in the quaint Cornish coastal town of Beer. However, it turns out the 'beer' in this instance is literal and the festival is in fact being hosted by a brewery in Staffordshire. 

As a perk for being involved I'm entitled to 'brewery benefits' which I'm sincerely hoping is just another way of saying 'free beer'.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

A Transylvanian Traverse

I knew they brought down a communist dictator with a revolution in 1989. I knew they beat England with late goals in 1998 and 2000. And I knew Nigel Farage said he doesn't want them living next door. But that was pretty much all I knew about Romania and its people before travelling through Transylvania.

© Ryan Chapman

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

It turns out Farage isn't alone in his disdain for the former Soviet-bloc nation. According to a poll, Romania is overwhelmingly the EU country where Brits would least like to live. So, naturally, I was keen to find out what's so dreadful about the place and its people and I strongly suspected the answer was nothing at all.

Here are some highlights of the trip, interspersed with photos and the occasional vague attempt at humour*.

Libearty Sanctuary (near Brasov)

Up until fairly recently it wasn't uncommon for Romania's native brown bears to be captured by restaurant owners and kept as pets to attract customers. I don't know about you, but when I'm choosing an eatery I'm often swayed if they have a distressed caged bear at the front door.

This practice was illegal, but the authorities turned a blind eye because there was nowhere to house any rescued bears. That was until 2005, when the brilliantly named Libearty Sanctuary opened its doors. Which was just in time because when Romania joined the EU new animal rights laws rendered many of the country's zoos illegal, adding to the list of bears needing a new home.

© Ryan Chapman

© Ryan Chapman

The sanctuary is part rehabilitation centre, part retirement home. The elders live out the rest of their days in bear paradise and the cubs are taught how to wild, before eventually being released. The sanctuary is very keen to specify it is 'not a zoo' and that its primary concern is for bears, not tourists. In other words, if you don't see any bears, tough shit.

The Museum of the Revolution, Timisoara

Timisoara is probably the most historically significant city in Romania. As like most of history, the majority of it happened ages ago. But, as recently as 1989, the revolt against Nicolae Ceausescu's regime began here, in the far west of the country. The tidal wave of revolution spread eastward towards Bucharest and Ceausescu was toppled several days - and at least a thousand lives - later, before being sentenced to death by firing squad.

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

To this day, bullet scars littering building facades in Timisoara make the violence of 89 seem all the more recent. The Museum of the Revolution brings it to life further, in a very understated way, inside a dilapidated building that probably hasn't seen a paintbrush since Ceausescu was in power (though I suspect this is intentional).

Christmas Markets

Sibiu was first on the Romanian Christmas Market scene, and other cities were quick to get in on the action of glühwein and sweet treats. Whilst Sibiu's is the most festively colourful, they range from the complete meat-feast in Timisoara (think hog roasts and sausages) to hosting almost-forgotten British band Smokie in Brasov (Living Next Door to Alice went down a storm, although some people weren't fully aware of who Alice is, judging by what they shouted during the chorus).

Timișoara © Ryan Chapman

Sibiu © Ryan Chapman
Sibiu © Ryan Chapman

Brasov © Ryan Chapman


Bran Castle - also known as Dracula's Castle - is a confusing mix of gothic splendour and bullshit. The approach is laden with vampire references, as this is said to be the inspiration behind Bram Stoker's fictional castle in Dracula. However, there's no evidence to suggest either Stoker or Vlad the Impaler - who Dracula was loosely based on - even visited the area, let alone the castle. In fact, they probably didn't even know it existed.

Soon after entering, the vampire bubble is burst and you realise it's actually a museum of furniture once belonging to some royal family in the 1920's. So you come for 15th century Transylvanian vampires and get 20th century Ikea.

Bran Castle © Ryan Chapman

They know it's bullshit, we know it's bullshit, they know we know it's bullshit, but tenuous links aside, armed with an active imagination Bran Castle is actually worth a visit. Just don't get locked in because rumour has it you wouldn't survive the night...

For an actual castle, with turrets and shit, there's Corvin Castle which watches over the somewhat crappy town of Hunedoara. And there's not a cartoon vampire in sight.

Corvin Castle © Ryan Chapman

In summary:

If myth-busting borderline xenophobic perceptions isn't a good enough reason to choose Romania as your next holiday destination then go for the charming old towns, refreshingly affordable restaurants and, of course, the bears.

Sibiu © Ryan Chapman

Be aware that nothing Romania is perfect. If the meal is delicious, the service will probably let you down. If the train is on time, there will probably be a power cut. If the cocktail menu looks good, they'll probably have run out of ice. But, be tolerant, and Romania is incredibly rewarding. After all, perfection is dull anyway.

*Umm, I warned you they'd be vague.